Mind and Body: the need for a good posture
From the moment of conception until the moment of death, mind and body are inextricably linked. Were it possible to separate them (it isn't), one could say that they constantly affect each other. Most people understand that mind affects body, as they see examples of this all day long. The moment people come into a room, their posture tells us whether they are feeling good, depressed, self-confident, afraid, tense and so forth - long before they say a word. But few people realise just how much body and breath can be used to help the mind. As meditation is concerned with taming and awakening the mind, posture can be mobilised to great use.
Although one can think, visualise, pray or do mental exercises in any position, there are few in which can remain healthily and comfortably for the time it takes to accomplish most meditations. The few that permit this (lying flat etc) often tend make one sleepy as the meditation brings relaxation. This is not what meditation is for. In a good meditation posture, relaxation becomes the basis for the crystal clarity of awakened awareness, not a sleepy haze.
Although it may be hard for beginners to get used to the classical Buddhist meditation postures, the rewards of a few sessions with aching knees are tremendous, as one can meditate in that good position for the rest of one's life. Correct posture helps the mind find peace, strenght and control. It benefits the physical body by bringing its energies and bio-systems into balance. And one can spend all day in a clasical posture in a state of great harmony - virtually impossible in everyday positions. Below you will find the classical 7-Point Posture of Vairocana, with some variations.
The 7-Point Posture of Vairocana
1. The back (i.e. from nape of neck to the small of the back) should be made as straight as possible - like an arrow or like a pile of coins.
2. The legs should be crossed in the vajra or bodhisattva posture (see right).
3. The hands (see below) should be folded, 4 fingers' width below the navel (not resting on the feet), the elbows slightly out. The shoulders are held up and back ('like a vulture')
4. The chin should be tucked in slightly, 'like an iron hook'.
5. The eyes (see below) should be relaxedly looking into space, at nothing in particular, somewhere about 16 fingers width in front of the nose.
6. The tongue should be held against the upper palate.
7. The lips should be slightly apart, the teeth not clenched. One breaths through the nose. top of page
Vajra posture - right leg is above left leg, the backs of the feet sitting flat on the tops of the thighs. Ideally, the two feet make a straight line. Bodhisattva posture - left sole fits under right thigh, back of right foot lies flat on top of left thigh.
The right hand sits on top of the left, 4 fingers' width below the navel, the thumbs touching.
Eyes and Gaze
Although beginners tend to find it easier to meditate with eyes closed, it is better to train oneself to meditate with open eyes from the outset. Closed eyes favour thoughts, daydreaming and distraction. Furthermore, one does not get into the habit of meditating while being visually conscious, meditation becomes associated with an 'other', inner world rather than a clearer, truer way of seeing this world.
Visual consciousness is one of the strongest factors in most people's lives. In order to understand it and bring it under control, there are many ways of using the eyes and the gaze while meditating. These need to be applied at the right time, in the right way, under the guidance of a competent meditation teacher. In the classical Vairocana posture the eyes are open but not looking at anything in particular, just resting relaxedly on a spot somewhere about 16 fingers' breadth in front of the nose. Sometimes, in this posture, they look at the tip of the nose, or just 4 fingers' breadth in front of it. The main point of this is twofold: to overcome the power of habitual visual distractions and to free the mind from the dominating power of visual consciousness. With time, it will be replaced by the inner eye of mind's wisdom.
Relaxation is important, so one should not stare fixedly or tensely and it is alright to blink so as to irrigate the eyes. If visual tension is building up (dancing colours and optical effects due to maintaining a fixed gaze), one can slowly and calmly shift the gaze to nearby objects and/or close the eyes for a while.
There are many different breathing techniques used in Buddhist meditation. They can be extremely beneficial but can also be very dangerous and therefore one must learn them under the direction of a competent master. It is risky, to say the least, to just pick up techniques from friends or books. Some, such as vase-breathing and forceful holding of the breath, can (when not used in the right circumstances) provoke long-lasting psychological troubles or health problems.
Beginners' meditations mainly help to calm and stabilise the mind. For this, it is best to breathe naturally and evenly: not forcedly or artificially. The main point of the practice will be to keep returning the mind to its focus of attention, be it the breath or something else, as well as to relax. Natural breathing helps one to relax, lettting the body find its own settled state.
You may notice, as you meditate, that
.. the inbreath,
.. the holding of the breath
.. or the outbreath
are not all taking the same length of time. One or more may be very short or very long compared to the others. If this is the case, it may be helpful, from time to time only, to practise breathing evenly, perhaps by counting slowly 1 -2 -3 -4 for each stage, i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4 for the inbreath, then holding the breath 1, 2, 3, 4 and then 1, 2, 3, 4 as you breathe out. This is quite calming and can help to create a good, even breathing habit which helps the mind be more balanced.
One breathes evenly through both nostrils of the nose, if possible, with the mouth almost closed. The best breathing is diaphragm breathing, i.e. a process of breathing animated by the abdomen going in and out somewhat like a bellows, rather than the main breathing movement coming only from the chest.
A Bare Minimum
Sometimes elderly people, those with physical disabilities or problems or even just newcomers find it too difficult to maintain all aspects of meditation posture. They want an 'at least' option. The main thing in that case is to try to maintain the back as straight as possible and to pay attention to the position of the head, the gaze of the eyes and a natural, even breathing. One can sit on a chair. Comfortable armchairs (which cause one to lean backwards) and lying on the floor are to be avoided, as more often than not one becomes sleepy and dreamy. This is fine if one only wants to relax but the main point of meditation (not relaxation) is to awaken the mind; to go from illusion to truth.
If, for whatever reason, you need to meditate in a comfortable armchair, try to pack cushions behind the back so that you don't lean backwards.
Things to Avoid
Sitting crookedly, i.e. do not lean to the left, the right, the front or the back. Due to physical imbalance, many people feel that they are sitting perfectly straightly when they are quite twisted. Meditation texts describe the various sensations, experiences and problems caused by each wrong posture, once it becomes a habit. For instance, meditating with the head tilted slightly backwards can produce some fairly pleasant, spacious feelings at first but leads to neurotic ones later.
The best thing to do is to have a meditation teacher or experienced friend helps you establish a good posture. Mirrors or video cameras can be a help too. This initial training may require some effort and even slight pain at first but it is a truly worthwhile investment which will bring its rewards each time you sit..
Poor environments. Stuffy, dirty, untidy or noisy places and places with many associations and distractions make learning to meditate much more difficult for beginners. Clean, neutral places, well-aired rooms and, if possible, pleasant outdoor places, especially those such as hillsides where one can have a lot of space before oneself, help one first learn to settle the mind and find inner peace.
Long sessions for beginners. It is better to just meditate well, in a good posture, for a few minutes than to become drowsy and pained over a longer period of time. The idea is to associate the meditate session with the most precious, awakened moment of the day. If, after say 5 minutes, there is pain and distraction, one can take the mind away from its focus and let the body relax - perhaps stretch or fidget a little without getting up from the cushion. Then one returns mindfully to the practice for another 5 minutes. As soon as one can line up several sessions of clear, crisp meditations, then one can lengthen each to 6 minutes, 7 minutes and so forth.
Things which may help
A good, experienced teacher
try meditating regularly in the morning, before breakfast (and before the mind is full of the day's busy-ness)
loose, light clothing
a cushion that suits you. The height of cushion needed varies from person to person. A firm cushion is best. A good trick is to roll up a blanket tightly until it is just the right height where the legs are comfortable, with each knee on the ground, and the back nicely straight. This will not only give some idea of the firmness needed but will indicate the sort of height you need. Many meditation centres now sell cushions or zafu
someone with knowledge of meditation, yoga or massage may be able to teach you some simple leg and ankle movements to make the muscles more flexible - so as to avoid beginners' pains (knees, ankles, top of foot)